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‘It rejuvenated my sense of living’: La Jolla lifeguard is back in service after three-decade break

La Jolla lifeguard Michael Russell started as a San Diego guard in the 1970s and '80s, then went into a career in academia.
La Jolla lifeguard Michael Russell started as a San Diego guard in the 1970s and ‘80s, then went into a career in academia. Now he’s back in the service.
(Courtesy of Michael Russell)

La Jolla lifeguard Michael Russell is probably one of the few people who can call themselves a rookie after guarding in two centuries.

Russell, who started with the San Diego lifeguard service in the 1970s and ‘80s, took a break to get his Ph.D. and start a life in academia. But a family tragedy prompted his return to service — and San Diego — last year.

“I definitely consider myself a rookie,” he said with a laugh. “A lot of things have changed since I last worked for the city.”

Russell worked the Mission Bay Harbor Patrol (now the lifeguard Boating Safety Unit) from 1977 to 1984 while he was a student at San Diego State University studying marine biology. “It was 40 hours of training then, compared to the two weeks of training they have now,” he said.

After a time as a seasonal lifeguard, he was promoted to a permanent guard but went back to working seasonally so he could get a master’s degree.

In the ‘80s, Russell got his Ph.D. and began a three-decade career teaching marine biology at Villanova University outside Philadelphia.

“I always wanted to come back,” he said. “Some of my lifelong friends were from those days, and it was the best experience of my life.”

He was really pushed to make the move by the death of his wife in 2017 from a rare neurodegenerative disease.

“It was a life-quake,” he said. “When you face something like that, you reflect on where you’ve been, what you’ve done and what you’d like to do. … In 2017, I was a college professor, I biked to my lab every day. That was turned upside down. That path I had been walking and envisioned continuing was turned inside out. ‘Traumatic’ isn’t strong enough a word. I was unmoored.

“But Joanie was smart, a lot smarter than me. She prepped me for life without her and had sage advice, so that period of time got me thinking about what I want to do. And this was what I wanted to do.”

So he hopped on his motorcycle and headed west, planning to stay with friends and ready himself for the lifeguard tests.

“Showing up was the hardest thing. I remember distinctly my interview when I showed up at Quivira Basin,” he said. “The greeter at the door was prepping these teenagers and 20-somethings. She was diplomatic, but confused, when I showed up. There was also a swimming test, and I was timing the other applicants to see my competition, and someone saw me and asked, ‘You got a kid out there?’ and I laughed and said no.”

He acknowledged he was nervous about testing with people a third his age. But “it was better than expected,” Russell said. “During the academy, I had some great experience. Some young kid came up to me one day and said, ‘You’re crushing it, dude.’ I said I wasn’t and he told me to take the compliment. Wisdom from a young man. I’m learning a lot, not just about rips and guarding and tying knots. I’m learning about life. It rejuvenated my sense of living.”

Back when he first applied to be a lifeguard in the ‘70s, the swim test was timed and the first few swimmers to emerge from the water were the winners, Russell said. Because Russell completed the test just behind the fastest swimmers, he was assigned the boating unit on Mission Bay.

“When I tell people I work with now that I worked the boats as a seasonal guard, their jaws drop,” he said. “Now there is a level of experience and training that is expected of the boat operator, which is a very good thing. The men and women operating the boats are really skilled and have gone through a lot of training and prep. I had good training, don’t get me wrong, but it wasn’t the same process.”

This time around, he’s guarded La Jolla Cove for the first half of the summer and will move to the La Jolla Shores area for the rest of the summer. He maintains his teaching work during the offseason but said the lifeguard work gives him more time to do what he loves.

“This job gets me out in the thing I love more than my academic job,” he said. “For every hour I get out in the field doing research, I spend 100 hours in front of a computer. Now my whole job is going out on the ocean. I’m passionate about the ocean, about helping people and about education — that’s the job of a lifeguard. I’m just so grateful for the opportunity.”

The things he enjoys the most change by the day, he said. “When I guarded La Jolla Cove and saw the swimmers first thing in the morning, that was the best thing. Then when I would help with a rescue and see the relief in someone’s face, then that was the best thing. Then I would work out with the people I work with, and that would be the best thing.” ◆